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Coronavirus reaches Europe as UK ‘hunts for 2,000 passengers who recently arrived from Wuhan’

Conrad Duncan
Passengers outside Heathrow Terminal 4, London, as the government met to discuss the threat from coronavirus: PA

The first cases of the deadly coronavirus have been confirmed in Europe, as UK public health officials have been working to track down about 2,000 people who are believed to have recently arrived from Wuhan.

The virus has killed at least 41 people in China, state media said, with more than 1,287 cases confirmed.

France on Friday announced the first cases outside Asia and the United States of the deadly new virus from China, and the country's health minister said Europe should brace for other new cases from the spreading epidemic that she said must be fought like a wildfire.

Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said the two confirmed cases, Europe's first, both involved people who had travelled to China, where hundreds of people have fallen ill and more than two dozen have died. The sickened patients in France were quickly taken to hospital, in isolation, one in Paris, the other in the southwestern city of Bordeaux.

In part because of Europe's open borders, the minister said she expects more cases.

"We see how difficult it is in today's world to close the frontiers. In reality, it's not possible," she said.

The confirmation came after public health officials in the UK said they were working with airlines to trace some 2,000 people who had come to the country from Wuhan in the last 14 days, The Independent understands.

“We are endeavouring to ensure that all passengers that have arrived from Wuhan in the last fortnight have the information they require to seek help if they begin to experience symptoms,” said Dr Nick Phin, deputy director of the National Infection Service at Public Health England.

Professor Paul Cosford, medical director at Public Health England, has said it is still “early days” for the virus but admitted that it is “highly likely” that cases of the new strain of coronavirus will be seen in the UK, after tests on more than a dozen people.

“We will not be surprised if people return from China to the UK with the infection, the important thing is that if you are one of those people and you develop symptoms you get in touch quickly,” Mr Cosford said.

Tests for coronavirus on 14 people so far in the UK have come back negative but checks are ongoing for an unspecified number of other people, according to Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer.

“We all agree that the risk to the UK public remains low, but there may well be cases in the UK at some stage,” Mr Whitty said in a statement.

“We have tried and tested measures in place to respond. The UK is well prepared for these types of incidents, with excellent readiness against infectious diseases.”

He added: “I think we should definitely see this as a marathon, not a sprint. We need to have our entire response based on that principle.”

Public Health England could not confirm on Friday how many more people are undergoing tests for the infection.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, also said the risk to the public was low after attending an emergency Cobra committee meeting on Friday to discuss the threat from the outbreak, which has infected nearly 1,000 people in Asia, Europe and North America.

On the eve of the country’s lunar new year, China has placed travel restrictions on at least 16 cities, which are collectively home to more than 40 million people.

The affected area includes Wuhan – the city where the virus was first identified – and neighbouring cities in central China’s Hubei province.

Authorities have said they are quickly building a hospital to house patients infected with coronavirus in an effort to contain the outbreak.

China has also closed Beijing’s Forbidden City and parts of the Great Wall of China to prevent large gatherings of people where the virus could spread easily.

US health officials have confirmed two cases of coronavirus and are monitoring 63 other potential cases stretching across 22 different states in the country.

On Thursday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said it was too early to declare an international health emergency over the outbreak.

“Make no mistake. This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency. It may yet become one,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director general, said.

“WHO’s risk assessment is that the outbreak is a very high risk in China, and a high risk regionally and globally.”

The outbreak has drawn comparisons to the Sars epidemic, which between 2002 and 2003 saw more than 8,000 cases and resulted in 774 deaths in 17 countries.

China was criticised for its slow response to the emergence of Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and its refusal to disclose details about the outbreak’s spread.

However, the country’s sweeping response to coronavirus so far has been praised by medical officials.

The European Tourism Association (ETOA) has said China is “far better prepared” to contain the virus than it was in 2002.

“Whilst there is much that is unknown about this new virus, we do know that the factors that led to the rapid spread of Sars are not being repeated,” Tom Jenkins, CEO of the ETOA, said.

“The Chinese authorities have been prompt in highlighting the problem, and are supplying daily updates on the situation.”

Mr Jenkins added: “Sars was spread by people not knowing about the infection and, consequently, unaware that they were travelling from an infected area. This is not the case in 2020.”

The ETOA has concluded that while the virus is a concern, it is “a very remote threat” to travellers in Europe.

Additional reporting by agencies

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